Saturday, May 30, 2015

The growth and decline of Eagle's historic churches

St. Paul's Church in Eagle

The first Christian missionaries in Eastern Interior Alaska did not follow the miners who began arriving toward the end of the 1800s. Rather, missionaries preceded the miners, following instead Hudson’s Bay Company as it set up trading posts. Thus, Anglican missionaries established a mission at Fort Yukon in 1862 to serve Athabascan Indians, and then began reaching out to surrounding villages along the Yukon River.

One of those villages was located just upriver from present-day Eagle. French-Canadian fur trader Francois Mercier opened a trading post he called Belle Isle near the village in 1874, and later moved the trading post downriver a few miles to a creek the Alaska Natives called Tototlindu.

According to the book, Yukon, the Last Frontier, the Rev. Vincent Sim started a mission adjacent to the trading post in the early 1880s — hence the change in the watercourse’s name to “Mission Creek.” Unfortunately, Rev. Sim, who was an itinerant priest, died in 1885 at Old Rampart, an Athabascan village on the Porcupine River where a Hudson’s Bay outpost and Anglican mission were located. The fledgling mission subsequently fell into disuse.

It was not until after the city of Eagle was established in 1898 that organized religion returned. The first churchman to set up shop was Father Francis Monroe, a Jesuit priest. He stepped off a boat on Aug. 10, 1899. A Catholic family leaving town sold him a lot with two cabins, and the larger cabin became the chapel of St. Francis Xavier.

A month later Presbyterians arrived. The Rev. James Kirk and his wife, Anna, moved into a small cabin and for a time held services in a saloon. The Kirks came with only the “essentials,” including china, linens and other household goods — even a sewing machine and washing machine. A history of the Presbyterian Church in Alaska relates that they also brought along a piano for their future church. Unfortunately, the piano was too large to fit through their cabin door, and for a time sat crated on the cabin’s front porch.

The Kirks eventually built a log church with attached residence overlooking the Yukon River at the end of Chamberlain Street. As with many churches in frontier Alaska, they set up a reading room in a corner of their residence to entice men out of the local saloons.

Unfortunately for Eagle, the Klondike gold rush soon petered out. When gold was discovered at Nome in 1900, most able-bodied men abandoned Eagle, and its population plummeted to about 100. Then, in 1902 gold was discovered in the hills above the Chena River, Fairbanks bloomed, and Eagle’s population shrank further.

Father Monroe struggled on a few more years in Eagle, but in 1904 shuttered St. Francis Xavier Chapel and moved to Fairbanks to establish a new church.

In 1902, the Episcopal Church, carrying on the work of the Anglican Church along the Yukon River, established a church in Eagle Village, the Athabascan community a few miles north of the white community. (When Hudson’s Bay Company vacated Fort Yukon after the U.S. purchase of Alaska, the Canadian Anglican Church also relinquished its missions to its kindred U.S. Episcopalians.)

The Presbyterian Church, due to declining membership, transferred its property in Eagle to the Episcopal Church in 1905. The Eagle Village church became St. John’s, and the church in Eagle became St. Paul’s.

Declining attendance eventually forced the closure of St. Paul’s and the church property was transferred to the Eagle Historical Society. The drawing is of St. Paul’s Church in the 1990s after the adjacent residence was torn down. The building is still used for weddings and other special occasions.


  • A Century of Faith, Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, 1895-1995. Centennial Press. 1995

  • History, Presbytery of the Yukon, 1899-1988. Jessie DeVries. Yukon Presbytery website. 2007

  • Photo of St. Paul’s Church – c. 1913. Walter and Lillian Phillips Photograph Collection. UAF Archives

  • Photos of St. Paul’s Church. Historic American Building Survey, National Park Service. 1984

  • The Alaskan Missions of the Episcopal Church, A brief sketch, historical and descriptive. Hudson Stuck. Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 1920

  • Yukon, the Last Frontier, Melody Webb. University of Nebraska Press. 1985

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Deadwood Creek mining camp near Central survives as family retreat

Deadwood Creek is a 20-mile-long northeasterly flowing stream in the Circle Mining District. It tumbles down out of the mountains before meandering across flats and emptying into Crooked Creek a few miles east of Central.

Reputed to be the “most mined-out” creek in the region, Deadwood has been pretty much continuously mined since the early 1890s. It and its tributaries, along with the Mastodon Creek area to the west, were the two primary gold-producing areas in the Circle Mining District.

Gold was discovered on nearby Birch Creek in 1892 and by November 1893 the entire length of Deadwood Creek had been staked. When Josiah Spurr toured the area for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1896, local miners referred to the creek as “Hog’em Gulch,” since, as Spurr wrote, “Its discoverer tried to hog all the claims for himself, taking up some for his wife, his wife’s brother, his brother, and the niece of his wife’s particular friend; even, it is said, inventing fictitious personages that he might stake out claims for them.”

At an organizing meeting of miners, the question of naming the creek arose. One miner suggested the “Hog’em” moniker, but cooler heads prevailed and the more dignified “Deadwood Creek” was chosen. However, locals called it Hog’em Gulch for years afterward.

The gold-producing placers of the Circle Mining District are relatively shallow, and during the district’s early years, operations were typified by individuals or small groups of miners using simple methods such as drifting (underground mining of frozen gold-bearing gravels sitting on top of bedrock), open-cut mining (excavating from the surface to reach gold-bearing gravels), and small-scale hydraulicking (washing out gold-bearing gravels using high-pressure jets of water).

According to the USGS report, Gold Placers of the Circle Mining District, there were 106 claims along Deadwood Creek in 1907, but over the years claims were consolidated as more efficient large-scale mining techniques were introduced. After 1909, large hydraulic operations were the norm until they in turn were replaced by mechanized operations starting in the mid-1930s. By 1936, only six placer gold-mining operations worked the creek.

Those operations were along the upper portions of the creek, but in the latter 1930s a small dredge churned the gravels along the lower creek. Miners Andrew Olson, Tony Lindstrom and Alex Palmgren formed the Deadwood Mining Company and built a small dredge that operated along Deadwood Creek during 1937 and 1938. The trio moved the dredge to Nome Creek (on the other side of Eagle and 12-Mile Summits) in 1939.

Wrede Brothers Mining Company, sometimes called Deadwood Creek Mining, was one of the few placer operations along the upper creek during the mid 1900s. The four Wrede brothers — Bill, Fritz, Everett and Ray —came to Alaska in the 1930s and settled into mining in the Circle District. Bill and Ray eventually moved to Fairbanks and operated a dry-cleaning business called College Cleaners. Fritz and Everett stayed in mining and ran a small drag-line operation along Deadwood Creek, just upstream from the confluence of Deadwood and Switch Creek.

They built a small mining camp just above the creek on the downhill side of Deadwood Creek Road. There are six buildings still standing, all of them wood-frame structures sheathed with tar paper. A large cook shack and two smaller buildings sit to one side the road leading down into the camp, with two small bunkhouses and an even smaller storage shed/workshop on the opposite side of the road.

My drawing shows the storage shed and one of the bunkhouses. The camp, typical of small mining operations, is still owned and used by the Wrede family.


  •  Bill O’Leary interview with Mary and Frank Warren at Central 1984. University of Alaska Oral History Collection. (Bill was a long-time Central area resident.)
  •  Conversations with Pat Babcock and Jeanette Wrede  (Ray Wrede’s daughters)
  • “Gold Placers of the Circle District, Alaska—Past, Present, and Future.” Warren Yeend. U.S. Geological Survey. 1991
  • “Mining in the Circle District.” J. B. Mertie, Jr.. In Mineral Resources of Alaska. U.S. Geological Service. 1929
  • Yukon Frontiers—Historic Resource Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River. Melody Webb Grauman. National Park Service. 1977
  • Through the Yukon Gold Diggings. Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Venerable Central Roadhouse almost made it to 21st century

The Central Roadhouse as it looked in the mid 1980s

In the summer of 1896, Josiah Spurr, Frank Schrader and Harold Goodrich floated the Yukon River, investigating mining areas for the U.S. Geological Survey. One of their objectives was the “Birch Creek Diggings” (now called the Circle Mining District) 50 miles southwest of Circle. In Spurr’s book, Through the Gold Diggings, he relates that during their Birch Creek side-trip they patronized four roadhouses.

The first was 12-Mile Roadhouse, located where the trail crossed Birch Creek. From there the trail branched, with one segment heading south-southwest to Deadwood Creek (then called Hog’em Gulch) approximately seven miles east of Central. Hog’em Junction Roadhouse was located where Deadwood Creek emptied into Crooked Creek.

The other branch veered west through what we now call Central, roughly following the current route of the Steese Highway. Mammoth Junction Roadhouse (later called Miller House) was located on Mammoth Creek just north of Eagle Summit, about 32 miles from 12-Mile roadhouse. Central Roadhouse was situated where the trail from Mammoth Creek crossed Crooked Creek, about midway between Miller House and 12-Mile Roadhouse.

With the 1902 discovery of gold in the hills north of the Chena River, a route linking the Circle-Miller House trail to Fairbanks developed. In Judge James Wickersham's book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials, he mentioned lunching at Central Roadhouse on his way from Circle to Fairbanks in the spring of 1903.

The Hog’em Junction Roadhouse eventually disappeared, probably after the Alaska Road Commission finished upgrading the Circle-Miller House trail into a wagon road in the early 1910s. Central Roadhouse survived and prospered though, and a small community grew up around it, providing shelter for travelers, and goods and services for miners in the surrounding hills.

Little is known of the roadhouse’s earliest owners, but by the 1920s it was owned by Henry “Old Man” Stade. During this period Alf “Riley” Erickson (who eventually took over the roadhouse) began working there. (Erickson was also the Central postmaster from 1925-42.)

When the roadhouse burned down in 1925, Stade and Erickson immediately began rebuilding. According to National Register of Historic Places documents, by 1926 they had replaced the original one-story roadhouse with a larger two-story 20-by-52-foot log structure (shown in the drawing). The new roadhouse had a shallow gable roof insulated with dirt and covered with galvanized metal roofing.

The roadhouse, which was situated south of and directly adjacent to the road, originally had a small arctic entry on its north, road-facing side, and a large storage shed tacked on to the south side. There were also numerous outbuildings, including a residence next to the roadhouse, barn and several warehouses across the road.

The Steese Highway was completed in 1928, and while it brought more traffic through Central, it also reduced the need for overnight lodging. Circle Hot Springs Hotel, opened in 1930, offered more luxurious accommodations, and travelers between Fairbanks and Circle often bypassed the roadhouse.

The roadhouse served as a community center for many years, but that wasn’t really enough to keep it solvent. In 1948, several months after the owner, Riley Erickson, died, the roadhouse closed and never re-opened. New owners used it for storage after that, and garage doors were installed on the east end of the building.

The outbuildings gradually disappeared, but the roadhouse itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Its owners hoped to rehabilitate the structure into a community center and museum, but decades of neglect made the project too expensive. However, when the Circle District Historical Society Museum was constructed about a half mile down the road, many of the roadhouse's furnishings and accoutrements were moved there.

According to Central resident Al Cook, repeated vandalism and trespassing forced the building’s owners to raze it in the early 1990s. All that is left is a pile of logs beside the Steese Highway, just east of the Crooked Creek.


  • “Alaska’s historic roadhouses.” Michael Smith. Alaska Division of Parks, 1974
  • “Central Roadhouse - National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Jane Williams & Patricia Oakes. National Park Service. 1977
  • Conversation with Al Cook, resident of Central
  • Jane Williams interview by Laurel Tyrrel. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1995. Jane was a long-time resident of Central and co-owner of the Central Roadhouse.
  • “Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials.” James Wickersham. Washington Law Book Company. 1938
  • Ruth Olson interview by Laurel Tyrrel. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1995. Ruth was a long-time resident of Central.
  • “Through the Yukon Gold Diggings.” Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900.